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Mobile Makerspaces: Tips and Tricks

Jenny Minich

Jenny Minich

Makerspaces are currently a popular topic, and they are being established in many libraries.  But there do not seem to have been any reports of mobile ones set up, like bookmobiles.  This presentation, by Jenny Minich, Branch and Outreach Services Librarian at the La Porte (IN) County Library, described the creation of SparkLabs, a mobile makerspace that was successfully created in less than a year with limited resources. Besides the considerations involved in launching a traditional makerspace, some special issues surrounding the mobile aspect must be addressed.

A makerspace was included in the library’s strategic plan.The decision to make it mobile was driven by the library and the varied community it serves—mostly a small rural population plus the city of La Porte, which has a population of 22,000. The library is the center of community life with a focus on reading, lifelong learning, and public involvement. The city has a transportation system, but it operates only within city limits, and it is not free.  Many people cannot afford to pay for trips to the library, so for the library to be a center of community life, it must travel to where people live. Another reason for making the makerspace mobile was that the main library did not have space for tools, equipment, and supplies. The mobile makerspace can be set up in a meeting room, branch library, community building,  or on the premises of a business; space can be created virtually anywhere.  Vehicles is used to transport the makerspace, and signs on them serve a marketing function, alerting attendees that the library sponsors the makerspace. The makerspace team includes staff, business community members, and volunteers.  It is important to network with community members invited to meetings. A spreadsheet was established to track the interests of the community.

Never underestimate the power of collaboration; a volunteer and the library collaborated on the makerspace. Manufacturing makes up 14% of jobs in the county. Many manufacturing companies are expanding, but they have difficulties finding qualified applicants.  They need people with STEAM skills, which can be provided to the community with a makerspace.

When the library obtained funds, the needs of SparkLab took first priority. A laser scanner and 3-D printer were pieces of equipment to be purchased. A graphic designer was hired to create a logo, posters, and signs.

SparkLab Brochure

SparkLab Brochure

The signs are taken to all events. The SparkLab webpage includes announcements of upcoming classes and a form to volunteer to help teach classes. The classes have generated much contagious excitement in the community. Photos of events are shared on social media platforms.

The first people that must get on board with makerspaces are library staff members. The La Porte library involves the staff in support activities like making displays, etc. as well as how to use the equipment. Strategic language emphasizing the educational value of the class is used when communicating with community members. Nontraditional resources like students, interns, and retirees help with the makerspace. A 3-D printer kit was purchased for $599 and was assembled in the earliest makerspace classes.  The community was introduced to the concept of a makerspace, and people wanted to donate their time to it.  Many participants have progressed from being observers and now serve as experts in their subject area. Local businesses are providing job opportunities to makerspace participants using the skills they have learned in the classes.

SparkLab equipment includes a 3-D printer, laser scanner, soldering kits, MakeyMakeys, Squishy Circuits, and littleBits kits. Growth has been incremental; equipment is purchased as funds become available. Demand may dictate which equipment is purchased.  Lessons for staff training are available from Lynda, which is available in the makerspace. Extensive use is made of volunteer experts when they are available.

SparkLabs has reached over 2,000 people in 8 months. Several curricula have been developed. Classes are conducted as self-directed informal education, with the pace set by questions from attendees. The first time a class is held, informal demonstrations take place. Initially, not much commitment was required for demonstration sessions, but as demand grew, a reservation system for the equipment became necessary.  Equipment for each class is stored as a kit in a portable bar-coded tote that is checked out on the staff member’s library card. Extra materials for staff to practice on ahead of the class must be ordered, and the use of consumables must be tracked and reordered as necessary. Before conducting a class, several important steps must be taken (as noted above, some of these are unique to the mobile environment):

Safety: Make sure that all supplies for safety are on hand. The lab staff members must find out about each place they will be visiting before the class and make sure the environment is safe. Appropriate safety equipment using proven technology is purchased and packaged in a bar-coded kit. The SparkLab staff checks the kits when they are returned to make sure everything comes back.

Legal issues: Copyright law signage is displayed at every 3-D printing class to protect library legally, and users are asked to take responsibility for their printing projects by pressing the print button.

Power and communications: What are the arrangements for wi-fi? How many power outlets are available, how far away are they from the demonstration area (will extension cords be needed)? Are the power circuits in the room able to handle the additional load put on them by the equipment?

Repairs: All staff members who teach classes must be trained so they are able to make simple equipment repairs on the fly, and the necessary tools must be included in the kits. After each class, the kits must be checked to replenish consumables and fix any damaged parts.

Long-term goals include a “Science 2 Go” bus to accommodate up to 24 students. And eventually, the library would like to have a permanent makerspace.

(If you are interested in another library’s extensive activities in makerspaces, check out my article on the FabLab at the Fayetteville, NY Public Library in the October issue of Information Today.)

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